Twenty years ago, the final Rick Berman-era Star Trek show premiered on the former UPN network to a mixed reception, at best. Originally called Enterprise, the fifth Star Trek spinoff held a lot of promise with its premise—a prequel to the original Star Trek universe which detailed humankind’s initial exploration of space and the events, such as First Contact with famous Star Trek alien races, that led to the formation of the United Federation of Planets, and the acclaimed Star Trek universe.
When Enterprise was conceived, the Golden Age of Star Trek was already coming to a close. Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9), two highly revered shows, were no longer airing and Star Trek: Voyager (VOY) was ending its seven-year run. By the time the final episode of VOY aired, Enterprise and its premise was known to fans, as was the fact that popular genre actor, Scott Bakula, the star of the beloved sci-fi time travel show Quantum Leap, was cast to play the lead, Captain Jonathan Archer. However, around this time the Star Trek franchise under the helm of Rick Berman was running out of steam, creatively. Many episodes of Star Trek: Voyager were formulaic and many feared for good reason this malaise would carryover into Enterprise since Berman created it and was the main showrunner, along with Brannon Braga.
There were signs that the new show was going through the motions, starting with it premise, another starship crew exploring the unknown sectors of space; the characters seemed bland for the most part and echoed the makeup of the original cast with a few differences.
Still, many held out hope that Enterprise would deliver and rekindle the spark of imagination that the Star Trek franchise was noted for. Many were cautiously optimistic about the show, yet others were not enthused about the show and were ready to move on to other properties.
Enterprise premiered on September 26, 2001, which obviously was the first post-9/11 Star Trek show just a few days after the catastrophic event struck the United States.
The pilot episode “Broken Bow” introduced viewers to the crew of NX-01 Enterprise, Earth’s first starship that was capable of reaching warp 5. The more notable crew members consisted of Captain Jonathan Archer (Bakula), Chief Engineer Travis “Trip” Tucker (Connor Trinneer), and First Officer T’Pol (Jolene Blalock), a skeptical Vulcan who acted more as a guide to the humans when they ventured into unfamiliar space.
The ship and crew were pressed into service when an alien Klingon crash landed on Earth and the Enterprise crew undertook the mission to return the Klingon to his people. What they soon learned was that a shape-shifting alien race called the Suliban were after the Klingon. This put the humans into conflict with the Suliban, which Archer learned were being manipulated by a great power in the far future.
This was part of a confusing sub plot throughout most of the show’s run about a so-called temporal cold war. Apparently, the time period Enterprise took place in (the 2250s) was pivotal in history and certain unknown factions in the future wanted to change it. According to some reports, co-creators Rick Berman and Brannon Braga were forced to include this plot line by the network, and the duo even admitted the plot was never fully developed, and it showed. Berman and Braga also revealed that initially they wanted the series to take place on Earth for a large bulk of the first season as the Enterprise was prepared for its maiden voyage. But the network asked that the starship immediately launch into action during the pilot episode.
“Broken Bow” was entertaining but not as inspiring or memorable as previous Star Trek pilots. A bad sign for the show was the opening credits which featured a montage of humankind’s history of exploration. The montage was fine, but it was ruined by a rancid rendition of “Faith of the Heart” that was so treacly and annoying.
Many of the characters introduced felt too familiar or were not memorable. It felt like the showrunners were trying to recreate the famous Kirk/Spock/McCoy dynamic with Archer, T’Pol and Tucker. Just swap the sex of the token Vulcan and make the emotional member of the trio an engineer instead of a doctor. Some characters were interesting but never got the screen time they deserved, such as Dr. Phlox (John Billingsley), a quirky alien doctor who was the chief medical officer of the ship. Other characters were completely forgettable, such as Travis Mayweather (Anthony Montgomery), the ship’s helmsman. What was known about him was that he was one of the first generations of humans to be raised in deep space. Other than that he was relegated to being a glorified extra.
The early episodes themselves were not very exciting or captivating, though there were a handful of standouts, such as “The Andorian Incident”, which established first human contact with the Andorians and introduced Shran (Jeffrey Combs), a volatile Andorian officer who was one of the show’s best characters. But in other episodes basically not much happens and felt routine. The basic premise of the show was that it was supposed to chronicle the first steps humanity took when it began exploring deep space. The tech was supposed to be crude, shuttles and grappling hooks were used by the ship instead of transporters or tractor beams. With that in mind, the transporters were still brand-new technology that was not trusted, yet they soon used all the time instead of shuttles. It’s a shame since the early reliance of shuttles inspired one of the better first season episodes “Shuttlepod One”.
Some of the storylines had interesting premises but the execution was mundane and the end result was by the numbers. Other episodes were outright copies of previous Star Trek episodes. For instance “Vanishing Point” had the same premise as “The Next Phase” from TNG, which did it better. The same went for “Precious Cargo”, an outright rip-off of TNG’s “The Perfect Mate”. It was obvious that Berman, Braga and other crewmembers were burnt out and going through the motions. Many of them, including Berman, had been involved with Star Trek since the mid-1980s. It was time to bring in new blood but the people in charge refused to see this and this is why the show suffered.
By the time the second season of Enterprise came to a close it was clear something had to be done. Ratings were declining, as was interest in the Star Trek franchise. Many fans abandoned it for fresher properties that were making their mark at the time such as Stargate: SG1, Firefly and Farscape.
As with previous Star Trek shows, Enterprise largely consisted of standalone episodes with some nods to continuity. Berman and Braga decided to adopt with the changing television storytelling landscape, which by this time began to embrace longer story arcs and tight continuity. Reflecting the post 9/11 landscape, the two came up with a season-long arc about a desperate mission to prevent the destruction of Earth.
This storyline began at the end of the second season with the season finale called “The Expanse”. Earth was suddenly attacked by a probe from an alien race called the Xindii that left millions dead. Afterwards, the Enterprise was recalled to Earth then sent on a mission to infiltrate the Xindii home system and prevent another more devastating attack. “The Expanse” was an obvious allegory to 9/11 with the reactions to the surprise attack and the drumbeat for war.
Signifying that the third season was radically different than the previous two, the show’s title was changed to Star Trek: Enterprise to help casual viewers know that this was indeed a Star Trek show. In some ways this may have harmed the show if these viewers tuned in expecting hopeful standalone episodes where the problems were always resolved by the last few minutes of that show. Then again the title change may have reminded viewers that despite its new method of storytelling, this still was a Star Trek.
The third season began with the Enterprise underway in unknown space as they searched the Xindii system. Along the way, the crew had many tense encounters, not just with the Xindii, but with other races and grappled with ethical dilemmas. Captain Archer found himself stretched to the limit as he was forced to make unethical decisions that enabled him to achieve his goal.
The Xindii arc was met with mixed reactions. Some enjoyed the high-stakes storyline that examined the true cost of war. Others thought the war-themed season deviated too far from the optimistic nature of Star Trek. These critics did not know true deviation until Star Trek: Discovery came along! No matter the reaction, the third season churned out many memorable episodes like “Twilight”, “Azati Prime”, “The Forgotten”, “Countdown” and the epic season finale “Zero Hour” which featured some of Star Trek’s best spaceship battles and was literally explosive with action.
Meanwhile, the Xindii emerged as one of the best and most developed alien races in Star Trek. In fact, they were actually a conglomeration of five distinct races that evolved simultaneously in their system with their own unique cultures. After the Xindii threat was dealt with, “Zero Hour” concluded with a stunning cliffhanger as the Enterprise found itself in an alternate 1940s where Nazi Germany invaded the United States.
As the third season wound down, so did the ratings and many feared the show would be cancelled. However, it was renewed and Star Trek: Enterprise hit its creative peak in the fourth and final season.
Rick Berman and Brannon Braga decided to take a back seat to running the show and recruited Manny Coto to step in for them. Coto brought a fresh take to the show and injected much-needed energy and creativity. In the fourth season, the show embraced its roots and became a true prequel to Star Trek.
Many episodes explored the beginnings of the Federation as Earth, Vulcan, Andoria and Tellar formed an alliance against a mutual foe, the unseen Romulans. Other episodes answered some nagging questions, such as why the Klingons in the original series looked different and more human than the Klingons seen in future films and TV shows. The answer was the original Star Trek didn’t have the budget for elaborate alien makeup, but still the aesthetics were glaring and bothersome.
Another two-part episode “In a Mirror, Darkly” examined how the infamous Mirror Universe came to be. It was an enjoyable romp with lots of scene chewing as even the opening credits were changed to reflect a darker human history of conquest. Also, unlike the third season, the fourth season was devoted to many mini-arcs with storylines lasting two to three episodes. The season culminated with the episodes “Demons” and “Terra Prime” where humanity finally faced its own demons and decided to embrace its intergalactic destiny by helping to form a coalition with other alien races.
Of course, these two episodes were not the final episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise. The actual final episode “These Are the Voyages…” quickly earned a distinction for being among the worst episodes in any Star Trek show. Fans wanted a proper farewell for the crew of the Enterprise with an epic story, the likes of which were seen in previous shows. Instead, the episode, which was written by Berman and Braga, was about TNG’s Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) undergoing a personal and career crisis. He uses the holodeck to recreate the first Enterprise ship in its final voyage in order to interact with the crew and get insight on how to deal with his problems. Many fans felt betrayed by the episode, especially with the way the fan-favorite Tucker was killed off. The script was more interested in Riker and Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) instead of the Enterprise crew. The presence of the TNG characters was clearly intrusive and took up too much valuable screen time. The episode should have been the crew’s swan song, instead they were basically secondary characters in their own show. Berman and Braga defended their script and said it was their way of saying goodbye to Star Trek in general, not just Star Trek: Enterprise. The episode left a bitter taste not just with fans but with the cast and crew as well.
At the end of its fourth season, Star Trek: Enterprise was cancelled due to low ratings and a desire by the network to chase after younger and trendier viewers. Naturally fans were furious with the network as they realized that for the first time since the 1980s there would no longer be a Star Trek show on the air. There was a fan campaign called TrekUnited to raise money to help fund a fifth season which actually raised millions. But the campaign did not go anywhere as Paramount Pictures refused to greenlight another season and with that final nail Star Trek: Enterprise came to an end. What was so frustrating was that the show finally found its footing and began to resonate with its refreshed scripts. Even more agonizing were the revelations of what was to come in the fifth season such as a redesigned Enterprise and even more prequel plots to the original Star Trek.
The show may be gone and not as revered as other Star Trek shows but Star Trek: Enterprise still had its merits and made important contributions to the lore and the franchise. It is also important to note that the show did not run out of steam as some other Treks and ended on a hight note. Will we ever see a return to that time period or revisit those characters? Who knows? We’re still waiting for a proper reunion of the characters from TNG, DS9 and VOY. In the meantime, at least we have the third and fourth seasons, plus assorted gems from Star Trek: Enterprise’s first two seasons to enjoy.